* Lew’s comments on “The Jewish King Lear” by Jacob Gordin
Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 8, 2015
This is a wonderful introduction to Yiddish theater in eastern Europe and New York, seen through the prism of the playwright Jacob Gordin and his play “The Jewish King Lear,” written in 1891 when it was not unusual to adapt plays from the European repertoire into Yiddish. The play was first performed on the New York stage in 1892, during the height of a massive emigration of 2.5 million Jews from eastern Europe to America.
Gordin’s setting is the celebration of Purim and the plot shows the shifting of fortune between the older and younger generation, between traditionalism and modernity, between religion and secularism. In Gordin’s view, the transition taking place on the stage is also taking place in the audience, as parents are suffering when their children no longer honor them.
Notes by Ruth Gay and Sophie Glazer convey Yiddish secular theater as a thrilling seductive experience, arousing passionate responses from audiences who saw portrayals of tension-filled situations presented in everyday language.
Also described is “Sappho,” another play by Gordin, which presents out-of-wedlock pregnancy and a proud statement by the heroine Sophia: “I made a mistake; it is nobody’s business; I take full responsibility; if I am to be a mother, I can care for my child by myself; I will be free and honorable in my actions, honorable the way I understand it, not Aunt Frade’s way and Uncle Melekh’s and all the rest.”
In my new novel, I’m hoping to show the impact of Gordin’s modern thinking and the spectacle of a riveting performance in the shtetl of Ciechanow, when a play written and first produced in America returns forty years later to its roots in eastern Europe.